Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

14 April 2014

The Seven Next-to-Last Words of Christ

The announced retirement of David Letterman made me think of his famous "Top Ten Lists." That famous segment of "Late Night" is the precursor of websites like BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Now there's a list for everything!

As with most things, the Catholic Church was ahead of the curve. We were into lists before they were cool. They make excellent instructional tools! Germane to the celebration of Holy Week is the list of the "Seven Last Words of Christ." When I was a kid, I thought that was one statement consisting of seven words, as in, (1) Father, (2) into (3) Your (4) hands (5) I (6) commend (7) My (8) much for that theory.

In fact they are seven distinct statements of Jesus, taken from all four Gospels. Preachers and writers have waxed devotional on them for hundreds of years. While reflecting on the readings for Passion/Palm Sunday I found at least seven penultimate last words worth our time and attention. (I'm glad I got to use the word "penultimate" once in a post before April was up.) Each of these utterances signaled Jesus' Paschal Mystery (His passion, death, and resurrection) and various dimensions of our participation in it.

As with the traditional list, they do not together compose a single narrative, because they are culled from all four Gospels. For theological and preaching purposes--rightly or wrongly--we tend to lump the Gospels together without attending to their individual peculiarities of context, audience, etc. The words are listed in the best possible reconstruction of chronological order.
  1. "The Master has need of them/it" (Mt 21:3; Mk 11:3; Lk 19:31). Whether Jesus is speaking about a furnished room or a donkey or our talents, He boldly requests them for His dedication and use. We usually consider ourselves in terms of "what I'm supposed to do for God, what He demands of me," etc. What about God's interest in us? He has so arranged it that certain things just don't get done unless we do them.
  2. The Words of Institution ("Take and eat/drink: this is My Body...this cup is the new covenant in My Blood"; Mt 26:26-28). The Eucharistic Gift of Self keeps on giving because of the priesthood Jesus established in the Church. It fulfills the Passover and the many sacrifices of the First Covenant. It liberates us from the effects of sin, suffering, and death. When Jesus transformed bread and wine into His own Body and Blood for the remission of sins, He was in effect promising to deliver Himself physically and spiritually to the hands of men. Holy Thursday gave way to Good Friday.
  3. "What you are going to do, do quickly" (Jn 13:27). We are told that Satan "entered" Judas at that moment when Jesus dismissed him to continue the betrayal. Here Jesus encourages Judas to have a sense of urgency. If Judas is supposed to be about his business with urgency, how much more does Jesus want us to labor enthusiastically--"with God inside," according to the Greek--for the Kingdom of His Father?
  4. "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Mt 26:24). While it certainly is possible that Judas is in hell, or that this or that other person in history is in hell, we ought not be keen on compiling God's Naughty People List. While the Church certainly affirms the reality of hell, according to Our Lord's own witness in Scripture, her mission (and His) is to help keep it empty—in light of which this statement has an ominous ring. Moreover, the Catechism affirms that  every human person contributes to the death of Christ (CCC 598), and every person remains the recipient of His saving love. Struggle with it if you like. I'm not offering any definitive answers.
  5. "I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the Kingdom of my Father" (Mt 26:29). This quote contains the promise of Jesus' resurrection, as well as our own. We continue to "drink this fruit of the vine" in every Holy Communion, but Jesus has refrained by returning in our flesh, by the Spirit's power, to the Father. "At length, when Sacraments shall cease," the Eternal Nuptial Banquet will furnish an elegant sufficiency.
  6. "Let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Mt 26:39). We may derive great consolation from the sacred humanity of Jesus. Sacred, yes; but also human. His sensibilities resisted torture and execution. Who'd enjoy it? But Jesus demonstrates the crucial fact (pardon the pun) that love is a choice and not a feeling. Love is a sustained choice that often entails a bunch of smaller choices that one makes along the way. Jesus' "intentional default setting," is the Divine Will. As He revealed in His prayer, the prospects of those next 24 hours did not appeal to His feelings and thoughts, and so they became a threat to His human will; as a result of which He reaffirmed the alignment of His human will to the Divine Will.
  7. "So you could not keep watch with Me for one hour?" (Mt. 26:40). Jesus dresses down the drowsy disciples not to expose any sin of theirs, but to heal their human frailty. We utterly need God to keep us alive and alert in His Presence. I, for one, am failing as the night progresses. Therefore
  8. Silence is the eighth of Jesus' seven next-to-last words. His opponents will hear more than enough silence from Him from betrayal to burial, and it will unnerve them. Pilate, and especially Herod, will hear it; His torturers will receive it at every lash, at every challenge to save Himself by an easier, softer Way. Jesus' silence makes His speech all the more meaningful; likewise for many of us who occasionally need a podiatric dentist to extract our feet from our mouths.


  1. I really appreciated this post. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the traditions, that we overlook the importance in their purpose. Thank you for breaking this down, and offering Jesus' words for us as a reflection during this most Holy week! I truly appreciate your insight, always.

  2. It is a pleasure to write, and a privilege to assist people in their desire to grow in knowledge and love of the Lord!